EdTech Managers: Is Your Dorm Stuck in the Dial-Up Era?

10/9/2013 9:01:00 PM
By Tim Kridel
If you live in, or were responsible for, a dorm in the 1980s, you probably remember that electricity was as scarce as beer was ample. That’s the era when students increasingly showed up with microwaves, computers, TVs and high-wattage stereo systems with woofers the size of rims and liquid-cooled tweeters. For those who were students at the time, the latter two examples might have been your first taste of AV integration.

Today, it’s bandwidth that’s often in short supply, but for the same reason: students are showing up with laptops, tablets, Roku, Apple TVs, and myriad other broadband devices, and they expect the Ethernet jacks and Wi-Fi coverage to be there.

When they’re not, they resort to tactics such as hanging a Wi-Fi router off of the few Ethernet jacks available just as their parents used power strips and cube taps to wring the most juice from every outlet. Thus yesterday’s brownouts and blackouts have given way to polluted 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrum and overloaded LANs.

Yet when it comes to articles, webinars, conference panels and white papers, dorm broadband gets short shrift compared to the classroom. That’s a shame for multiple reasons. One is that the slide decks, videos and other classroom content are just as important to students living in dorms as it is to their classmates in apartments and Greek houses. If they can’t easily access that content from their dorm, they’ll either suffer academically, or they’ll go add to the burden on the WLAN in the student commons or library.

Another reason why it’s a mistake to overlook dorm broadband requirements is because those facilities are competing with apartments, especially at schools that don’t require freshmen to live in dorms. For those that do, prospective students and their parents, broadband is one of the dorm amenities that they’ll weigh when choosing a school, just as they prefer private and semi-private bathrooms over gang showers.

It’s here that another trend compounds the need for better broadband: Until a decade or so ago, many of those apartments were in antiquated, dorm-like buildings or in single-family homes that were carved into duplexes and quadplexes as faculty neighborhoods adjacent to campus transitioned into student ghettos.

Today, there’s a rapidly growing selection of student apartment complexes filled with amenities that their parents didn’t have until they were pushing 30. Hence the recent New York Times article, “In Student Housing, Luxuries Overshadow Studying.” Wired and wireless broadband is one of those amenities—and one thing that students and their parents consider when choosing between dorms and apartments.

These are among the bottom-line reasons why colleges and universities shouldn’t shortchange broadband when building or remodeling dorms. The next question is, how much is enough? Should each room get 1 Gbps because that’s what students who grew up in Google Fiberhoods expect? And what are some ways to ensure seamless, reliable Wi-Fi coverage in a building made out of steel and cinderblocks and filled with interference-spewing microwaves?

One place to look for answers is Aruba Networks’ “Dorm Wi-Fi Design in the Era of BYOD” webinar. The slide deck is available here, and is filled with valuable insights such as the amount of bandwidth used by applications such as Blackboard and video conferencing, as well as how different types of building materials attenuate signals differently in the two Wi-Fi bands. It’s worthwhile reading for any higher ed technology manager who understand why dorms can’t be the weak link between students and knowledge.

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